Would you book this Continental Airlines flight?

Ah, technology.  You’ve made our lives so easy.  No longer do we need to read a map, we can use Google Maps or Mapquest at a moment’s notice to get us from Point A to Point B.  And for those of us who can’t even plan that far ahead, there’s always GPS.  Computers have made traveling so easy, sometimes we forget that these systems don’t always get things right.  And every once and while, you’ll see a spectacular routing failure, as I did today when booking my flight to Shanghai.

I live in Philladelphia, the home of US Airways.  Domestically, I always default to them because I’m a status member, so I get all the perks that goes along with that.  Not to mention, since Philly is one of their hubs, they are also one of the lowest cost airlines flying out of PHL.  But in my CCMBA travels, I’ve had to step outside US Airways (except for London), and I usually fly Star Alliance member Continental.  Today, I tried to book a flight from Philly to Shanghai, and here is one of the lower cost results:

Since it’s a bit hard to read, one of the suggested itineraries for travel from Philly to Shanghai is as follows:

  • Philadelphia to Houston, TX – 3 hours, 37 minutes.  55 minute layover
  • Houston, TX to Phoenix, AZ – 2 hours, 54 minutes.  50 minute layover
  • Phoenix, AZ to Newark, NJ – 4  hours, 27 minutes.  4 hours, 39 minute layover
  • Newark, NJ to Shanghai – 14 hours, 40 minutes.

For $1250, I can take 4 flights for a combined 11,883 miles and spend 32 hours just to arrive in Shanghai.

I guess I need to find another airline, since Continental seems to be a bust.  Oh, wait…Newark, NJ is less than 2 hours driving from my house.  I wonder if there are any seats available on the fourth leg of that journey?

Hmmm…tough decision.  Should I spend $1250 and 32 hours and 3 minutes to travel to Shanghai, getting on and off a plane a total of seven times, or spend $898 take the direct flight from Newark lasting 14 hours and 40 minutes (knowing I will have to drive 2 hours to get to Newark)?  I suppose the 4,476 extra frequent flier miles could be worth $352  to some people.  But those people are known as masochists, of which I am not one!

Now obviously, this is just a humorous example of a computer program that answers “How do I get from Philly to Shanghai on Continental?” without human intervention, and there’s no reasonable way to manually audit every single result (again, unless you are a masochist).  But paying an extra $352 for 4 flights and 55% longer flight time, when the last leg flight leaves from an airport two hours drive time away?  There’s got to be a programmatic way to keep these types of missteps from occurring!

But one thing that needs to be fixed immediately…real-time price changes by the minute.  I paid more than $898 for the flight I screen captured above, about 10 hours ago.  I just checked the price again, and now:

So because I didn’t call customer service within the 15 minute period that the lower price was available, I have lost the ability to get the ‘proper’ price (in my mind) for my flight.  As an economist, I fully understand demand pricing, but that’s just wrong Continental.

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5 comments to Would you book this Continental Airlines flight?

  • Naveen Venkataraman

    Hi Randy,

    I read your blog and went to the Continental site to check out the routes for myself.

    If you notice, there is a small check box in your search area which says : “Search nearby airports”. I selected this option and as part of the searches, I was given two options: 1. Flights from Philly 2. Flights from nearby airports.

    When I selected the second of those two options, I could see multiple nearby airports and that led me to the same flight you have seen later originating from Newark.

    So, maybe the system does have its intelligence, but just needed a prod (by clicking the nearby airports option) :)

  • Yeah, I noticed that check box. I generally don’t use it, because it usually provides too many results. Or, it provides strange results; I didn’t make screen prints, but my flight to India would’ve cost more had I taken it directly from Newark. So I flew a 30 minute commuter flight from Philly to Newark to save $150 or so!

  • syed

    Similar experience, I booked my flight with Cathay Pacific. The website asks you to pick which country you are in, I picked Saudi Arabia and selected my flight. Before paying I decided to try changing the country. I logged into the site again, picked India as my country, selected the same flight (originating from Saudi Arabia) and got a cheaper price. I tried looking at other countries and found that India had the cheapest flight. Needless to say I booked the cheaper version.

  • David Braverman

    I understand the airline-status constraint. I’m a premium member of American’s program (living in Chicago, it’s them or United). And a trip to Shanghai is worth many, many elite-status miles.

    Also, American has a “special” relationship with British Airways, much the same way that some cousins have “special” relationships in parts of West Virginia. This means that invariably, on any international trip, at least one routing goes through London. *Including* Shanghai.

  • Ha! Nothing like a good WV bashing to start the day.

    The post had a funny consequence; a representative from Continental called me last evening to explain why itinteraries like this occur. It was an amazingly frank call about their website, and development that is going on behind the scenes.

    The one disappointment was when I asked a non-related question about the Star Alliance. Apparently, if you buy a non-refundable ticket (i.e. cheap), you can’t use USAirways miles to upgrade on Continental (by USAir or Star Alliance rules, not Continental). So I’d have to pay extra for the same coach ticket, with the hope that upgrades are available, so that I can use my miles (and probably pay a first class upgrade fee of $300-$500, which is at least USAir’s international rate).

    I guess I’ll just give up my dream of first class flights for CCMBA, and instead use my USAir miles domestically. And once my year is up on the USAir credit card that I paid the annual fee for, I’ll drop the card and USAir FF and just move to a standard cash back or a card that does statement credits.